You walk along Aragon Avenue in the Gables, just west of Ponce de Leon. Duck into a nondescript space to find four walls surrounding, well, nothing. It’s an impressive space though: a two-story situation in a storefront. Nice part of town. Easy access from the street. No floors, but that can be fixed. Maybe it could be used for parking, it’s certainly big enough. Or maybe storage for machine parts. Yeah, that’ll work. You nod to yourself. Perfect! Machine storage is a great idea!
Then again, it’s got really good bones. And a killer location. Maybe – just maybe – we can forget the storage idea. Maybe – just maybe – it could be… an art house cinema?
Thanks have to be given to the City of Coral Gables and Coral Gables Cinematheque, Inc., because together they looked around at those four walls and saw real potential. Just across from Books & Books, the Coral Gables Art Cinema at 260 Aragon Avenue, born in October 2010, remains open for business, showing first-run independent films from the U.S. and abroad, and showing them in great style.
Coral Gables owns the building and is teaming with Coral Gables Cinematheque, Inc., a non-profit 501(c)(3) film-arts organization headed by Steven Krams that has taken out a long-term rental agreement. Though technically a partnership, it’s understood that Cinematheque is in charge. And its decisions start with its director, Robert Rosenberg, the Emmy-award winning filmmaker responsible for the feature film Before Stonewall and who has in his long resumé the credits of being a Founding Director of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and an Associate Director of Tigertail Productions.
“So the City about four years ago began putting money into the property,” says Rosenberg. Enthusiasm pours out of him in rapid-fire speech. “The City invested over $250,000 of City money in building over the structure. There was no infrastructure here at all. I mean, you’ve got two stories with no floors, but they built the infrastructure.”
“The Coral Gables Foundation also donated another quarter of a million dollars. They’re called the Perrin Family Fund. The Fund, The Coral Gables Community Foundation to be administered by the mayor of Coral Gables, Mayor Don Slesnick, they put in another quarter million. So they were over $500,000 invested on their side.”
That money was supplemented by donations and grants from various generous sources. From Miami-Dade County came a wheelchair lift, portable stage, and audio system for the hearing impaired. Krams is a long-time film industry pro, and from his own business, Magna-Tech Electronic Company, came money for top-of-the-line furnishings and fixtures. Special theater seats were donated from a business in Mexico. The projection system, another cutting-edge piece of equipment, also was donated. And all this came through despite an arts-killing, soul-destroying recession.
“Most of the basic resources were committed prior to the recession,” says Rosenberg. “We have hopes to get more large donors for operating costs. That’s been more challenging. Bringing in more individual donors has been more challenging.”
So, what has all this time, effort, and money accomplished? Art Cinema offers state-of-the-art, independent American and international films, modern and classic, in a high-end setting you rarely get to experience. Seating 141 patrons and offering the finest in electronic components, the theater pampers visitors while they view a unique film. And, stresses Rosenberg, it’s the eclectic programming that is the heart of this cinema.
“I’m looking simply, foremost, for great movies that we love, that are exciting artistically with interesting content, that are not making the commercial rounds, primarily. That would be great to give the chance to get the film exposed to Miami audiences and give Miami audiences a chance to get exposed to the film.”
“Secondarily, I’m looking for diversity in style and content form. So we have films in from maybe 20 countries so far in the first six months of being open. We’ve shown feature-length animation, we’ve shown thrillers, we’ve shown comedies, we’ve shown films with gay themes, Jewish themes, about colonialism, about – a film about a relationship with their dog! Our films are all over the map. Our films have been mostly major and international film-festival-award winners. Those kinds of high-end, international art house films.”
These are movies that have been showcased on the festival circuit, but have yet to make inroads commercially, and if they’ve never been shown anywhere in Florida, so much the better. Films that are not easy to find, that are not obvious choices. Offerings such as Freakonomics, which is based on the best-selling book; Howl, with Oscar nominee James Franco as Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg; Eyes Wide Open, the story of an Orthodox Jewish father who falls in love with a man; White Wedding, a comedy set in South Africa where a groom and his best man get lost on a road trip; Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, detailing the folk artist’s life and death; and the animated version of J.R. Ackerley’s memoir, My Dog Tulip (tagline: “Sometimes, Love Really is a Bitch”).
Recently showcased were offerings such as the cyber-thriller Black Heaven (L’Autra Monde); Biutiful, which earned Javier Bardem an Oscar nomination; and Kaboom, from iconoclastic director Gregg Araki.
“Eighty percent of the films we’ve shown are exclusive to Miami-Dade County, to us. Even exclusive to Florida, to us,” says Rosenberg. “The other 20 percent of the films we’ve either shared with a theater north of here or sharing with Broward County. But even, most of our films have been pretty exclusive, so if we’re the only ones showing it in all of South Florida, people are traveling pretty far and wide.”
Rosenberg’s talking about a cinema that’s open seven days a week, all year round, and which is within easy reach of just about everywhere. As more and more people become aware of the theater, he says, more and more make the effort to come in.
“I would guess about 50 percent of the audience is from the Gables and its environs, and 50 percent is the wider South Florida community. We have people who drive all the way down from West Palm and all the way from parts of the Keys! So we definitely get good numbers of people from the northern part of the county and all the way from the Beaches.”
So, how do you keep all these films going when the average filmgoer heads off for the mall? It takes no-nonsense fundraising. Because Art Cinema is run by a non-profit, grants can be obtained – the Bacardi Corporation and the City of Coral Gables have been particularly helpful – and loans and donations help out, too. Also in play are memberships that help with the day-to-day expenses. There are approximately 200 members who get benefits for their donations. Rosenberg acknowledges a “chicken and the egg” situation in that right now there’s minimal money in the budget for advertising, but promotion would aid in getting the word out.
And Art Cinema does more than simply show unique films to movie buffs. This outfit works in conjunction with other groups to cross-pollinate the arts here in South Florida. “Books & Books has been extraordinarily helpful. Mitchell Kaplan – they’ve come in-house to help promote a film and do joint programs where the filmmaker might also be a novelist, might come in to read from their novel,” says Rosenberg.
Art Cinema also has been home to a number of festival screenings such as the Miami Short Film Festival, the John Paul II International Film Festival, and the Romance in a Can Film Festival, among others.
A film production training program could be under way by Summer 2011. Also, Art Cinema is talking to a number of people about bringing in a special children’s programming series. As always, events such as panel discussions and meet-and-greets will continue.
“We’ve brought in filmmakers and actors. We also have a reception that’s part of the Opening Night Events, where we get a chance to actually interact and socialize and talk directly with the filmmakers. It’s a small venue, so it’s a great, intimate stage there,” he notes. The Gables has morphed from a quiet, well-heeled Miami suburb to a place known for its vibrant nightlife. In addition to cultural favorites such as live theater at The Actors’ Playhouse and concerts courtesy of the University of Miami, new restaurants and clubs abound. Having the Coral Gables Art Cinema in this mix makes the Gables serious competition for South Beach.
“We are really situating ourselves, looking at ourselves, running ourselves as a first-run, full-time, seven-days-a-week, year-round art house cinema,” says Rosenberg, “showing primarily 35mm and high-end, theatrical-grade projects that are – we’re state of the art. We’re brand new, really high-end equipment. We’re a very comfortable place with on-site parking ($1.50 for three hours), in upscale, beautiful Coral Gables.”